Father’s Day: Why I Changed My Last Name

hello my name is

What’s your first and last name?  Jonathan Ng. That’s spelled N-G. N like Nancy and G like George. And it’s pronounced like king, but without the k.

Since I was a kid, every time someone asked me to identify myself, I would rattle off the spelling of my last name. On occasion, I’d even copy my dad’s M.O. and throw in Nancy and George for safe measure. You learn to do these things quickly when you hear your parents on the phone, repeating tag lines after their last name. Or when you get puzzled looks from your teachers when they try to read your last name on the first day of school. Spelling and pronouncing my last name made it easier for everyone. It was efficient and anticipatory (my Chinese parents would be proud). But doing these things can only go so far.

Despite anything that I might say, I cannot hide the fact that my last name points back to my heritage and culture. Like so many other Americans from non-European backgrounds, my sovereign foundations are hardwired into my being and reflected in my skin, my person, and my name.

At times, people can choose to overlook my difference. That my last name distinguishes me as Chinese can be quickly passed over (Colorblind narrative). On other occasions, my difference can serve as a catalyst for celebration among friends and neighbors. Whether our shared experiences of diversity move past the superficial, though, often remains the ongoing question and invitation for each of us.

2 Minutes in My Shoes

When I was recently at the store trying to exchange a wrong-sized lightbulb, I experienced another approach to difference, one that shrouds itself in mainstream American expectations and the assumption that white is right.

As I walked up to the counter, I explained why I wanted to make an exchange. In customary fashion, the Lowe’s cashier lady asked for my name and contact to process my request. After spelling out my last name to her, I expected a brief silence, a quick line about how interesting my last name is, or maybe some surface-level chit-chat.

Instead, I got this:

Oh…. Huh! That’s so…You would think there’d be a vowel. There needs to be a vowel in there. I mean, I don’t get it, we’re in America.
And if you’re going to live here, you should just spell it the way the English language is supposed to work. I don’t understand why…

The Lowe’s cashier lady keeps going. I force a smirk and shake my head ever so slightly. Ignorance I can handle, but when my sense of belonging and being are called into question, we’re trudging in something much more nefarious. For a moment, I feel like I’m back in grade school again. I breathe and count to 3. But my mind has already kicked into overdrive…

I can’t believe she just said that.
Oh right, I’m not in downtown Austin.
…And she’s still talking.
Should I play this one off? Or should I call her out? Is it even worth it?

I remind myself that I still need her to give me a new light bulb. The smirk turns into a forced smile. But behind my constructed exterior, something inside of me burns. It’s been a long couple of years for so many POCs (people of color). I’m angry, and I’m tired. And all I can muster up in the moment is a sarcastic retort: “Yeah – I guess you can blame it on the people who named me.”

….And there’s that other last name….what is it … N-G-U-Y-something. That’s even worse – they pronounce it win.

Are you serious?

I try another tactic. Having just welcomed our first baby into the world, I just don’t have the energy for a full-on confrontation. So I opt for something more indirect: “Yeah – that can be tough. The English language can be tricky. There’s so many grammar rules. I used to be an English teacher for middle school in Dallas actually. And it was so annoying because I’d teach my students a rule, but then immediately, I’d have to teach them all the exceptions to the rule.”

Oh yeah – I guess that’s true. English is kinda tricky. There are a lot of rules that we just break….(awkward pause). Alright, well, we’re good to go. Here’s your new lightbulb. 

Finally.


Enduring Evil

Every time I experience racism this blatantly, I’m reminded of the lie that I’m less-than, that I don’t belong. I’m reminded of how I must fight against the powerful, dismantling forces of division, even as I struggle to love the ones perpetuating them. I’m also reminded that I can’t do this on my own. I need you. We need you.

This kind of racism shows up frequently enough in my life that I’m no longer surprised when it does. It’s what I grew up with, and it continues to remain a part of my experience. But my familiarity with this entrenched evil does not make it unimportant. The beliefs of this lady are not trivial. Unexamined, they can go on to fuel more tragedies and hate crimes that we’ve seen far too much of. Unchecked, they can rob people of their God-given glory and lie dormant within our communities.

For our communities to move forward in unity and equity, we need to recognize the lingering vestiges of white supremacy within our organizations. We need to repent of our complicity. We need to acknowledge the failings of colorblind narratives and theologies. We need people of all backgrounds and colors to step up, to use whatever power and influence they have to combat the ugly sin of racism.  When we begin to take these steps, I believe we will see the stronghold of structural racism being dismantled within us and also our communities.

But we have a long journey in front of us. Throughout this past week:

  • The Southern Baptist Convention struggled to pass a resolution denouncing the racism of the alt-right movement, and it only did so after extensive revisions.
  • The #PhilandoCastile ruling on Friday signaled yet another fissure in our society when it comes to race and justice.

Silence is no longer an option we can afford. 

A Choice in the Midst of Injustice

In a culture that only tenuously accepts us, difficult choices become our reality, and impossible situations become our norm.

With my baby daughter now in the world, there’s nothing more that breaks my heart than knowing that she will face the same things that I face. Don’t get me wrong – I’m an optimist by nature. But on this front, my optimism unquestionably yields to the sad reality that my difference, and hers, will not always be acknowledged and appreciated. Racism, both on the personal and systemic levels, is a part of this broken world that I’ve learned to endure and fight against.

I wish that all I needed to do is remind my daughter that Jesus loves her, that we love her.  I yearn for the kingdom to come in its fullness and make all things right. But in the here and now, I’ve had to learn how to cling onto the promise of Revelation 7:9 while also holding onto my present reality:

“After this I looked, and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb. They were wearing white robes and were holding palm branches in their hands.” (Rev. 7:9)

News flash: Heaven won’t be colorblind. One day, we will celebrate, know, and enjoy each other’s differences as God intends. But until that day, I will keep striving to cultivate communities that live as a picture and preview of God’s coming kingdom. I will keep battling against the surface-level diversity that has shackled our imagination. Until that day, I will keep living in tension, making choices that I do not always like making. 

Changing my last name’s spelling is only the latest choice I’ve had to make. (Don’t worry – it wasn’t some split-second decision I made because of what happened at Lowe’s. It’s been an option for years, and ironically, we got it done a few weeks before all this happened. All that’s left is for the paperwork to be processed). The choice isn’t a great one. A change in my last name’s spelling only moves the needle slightly for my daughter. In the eyes of some, we will still be seen as perpetual foreigners.  This is the lived reality that so many POCs wrestle with, and it’s painful.

So why the spelling change? (hint: it’s not about making it easier for others)
As I teach my daughter how to courageously respond to a world that may not always value her whole being, I’ve also chosen to try and protect her, however marginally, from the injustices I’ve experienced. 

Showing Up

In pockets of our communities, racism runs rampant in our world today. It shows up in our everyday interactions, and it will show up in the way my daughter experiences the world. But racism goes far beyond interpersonal relationships. It also shows up in the structures of our institutions, our churches, and our communities. As a new father, all I can do is keep showing up, too – to pray, resist, call out, lament, teach, and hope, even when I don’t want to. Even when I don’t want to change my last name.

So that’s what I’ll do.

And the next time someone asks me to identify myself, I’ll say: Jonathan Eng. That’s spelled E-N-G.

Hopefully, when that happens, Nancy and George can stay home with their little one, Elmer. Hopefully, you’ll show up instead – to listen, to learn, and to advocate for a different world.

Happy Father’s Day.

 

 

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A Call to Embrace

A Syrian refugee child who fled the violence from the Syrian town of Flita, near Yabroud.

Photo Credit: Reuters

While I will always have roots in Texas, there have been times when I have wanted to disassociate from the land of BBQ and football. This is one of those times.

An Assault on Humanity
Over the weekend, ISIS attacked and bombed Paris and Beirut, leaving hundreds dead. On November 16, 2015, Governor Greg Abbott released an open letter to the POTUS, stating that Texas would not be accepting Syrian refugees. Several other state governors joined him in a position that reeks of xenophobia.

Attempting to hide behind the guise of self-preservation, Abbott’s statement is nothing less than violence on our shared dignity as humans. It assaults the basic humanity that all people share and all governments should protect. And it makes me concerned.

The letter that Abbot penned is held together by a loose and fragile argument. It argues that in order to protect Americans from the possibility of danger, Texas will no longer accept refugees. Abbott’s letter (and many of the other letters from US governors) operates behind a thin veneer of good intentions and misinformation. Break through it, and we find the festering issues of fear, elitism and a hardened moral conscience. Abbott would have us think that an American life is more valuable than a Syrian refugee’s; he would have us believe that Syrian refugees are ISIS militants (the identified attackers were all EU nationals); he would have us say to those with their backs up against a wall, “I will not help. Your suffering is yours to bear”; he would have us turn away from Syrian men, women and children and exercise a willful ignorance of human suffering.

Abbott’s brand of nationalism sets up a false barrier that obscures our shared humanity with all people in the world. There is a place for nationalism (and also a robust vetting process). But when we decide to primarily see ourselves as Americans and the “other” as foreigner, we place our national citizenship above our God-given humanity. At best, this results in a distance between me and the “other,” and at worst (and this is more often the case), it creates fear, distrust and the false belief that others do not deserve the protection and preservation of their universal human dignity.

Good Samaritans?
Self-preservation at the cost of neglecting refugees is something that we must wholeheartedly refuse. Accepting Abbott’s position pushes refugees into a more precarious and threatening situation than they are already in. It selfishly attempts to abdicate our moral responsibility as we “pass by on the other side of the road.” While I recognize that not all readers of this blog are Christ-followers, I believe most of us are familiar with the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37).

As a society, it’s curious and ironic how we have chosen to apply the Good Samaritan principles to our everyday life. We teach our children to help those in need. We rehearse to each other that we should find ways to seek the welfare of our neighbors. Yet we also find ourselves afraid. In our culture of litigation and self-preservation, we have found ways to hardwire ourselves to not help.  Being a good Samaritan often comes at the cost of fearing for one’s own well-being. We have actually made laws to protect those who help others in dire situations – and we call these our “Good Samaritan” laws. In the name of self-preservation, we have created a culture where it has become dangerous to help. We have inoculated ourselves from compassion and justice.

Practicing Embrace
It is unlikely that the states  have the legal authority to refuse refugees. So I wonder how we will ultimately respond to this global crisis. When Syrian refugees come, will we embrace them in our common humanity, or stand at a distance, refusing to allow them into our own neighborhoods and schools? Tolerating refugees is not acceptance, but rather a continued marring of our neighbor’s human dignity that contributes increased disillusionment and resentment.

As I write this, I am thankful that other governors have expressed welcome to refugees. France itself is maintaining its commitment to accept 30,000 refugees. However, I am still shocked and ashamed at the response of so many of our governmental leaders.  I am appalled at the amnesia of our country on our history. One governor recently cited the Japanese internment camps as a positive example of why it would be prudent to close our nation to Syrian refugees. Smh….Have we learned so little? I currently attend a church with former Japanese internees, and I cannot imagine the collective pain they had to endure during WWII as US citizens. If we want to dismantle the fear of terrorism, then our call is one of embrace. We must sit and listen to our global neighbors; we must learn their stories and lament the evil that has robbed them of their home and way of life; we must stand side-by-side with refugees, understanding that our journeys are inextricably shared. Embrace teaches us to love each other and find our identities in our interconnectedness, not in isolation from each other. As Desmond Tutu has expressed, “My humanity is bound up in yours, for we can only be human together.”

The assault on humanity must be confronted with our commitment to embrace. I pray that we will not repeat history, that we will not stand on the sidelines in silence. I pray that we will practice the mission and embrace of Christ – “to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord.” I pray that we will choose compassion and justice.

4 Ways to Practice Embrace:
1. Write your governor and your political representatives. Organize and make our voices heard.
2. Contact your local refugee services. Ask what they are currently doing to help Syrian refugees. Consider partnership.
3. Serve local refugees already in your area. Listen, lament, serve and embrace.
4. Support refugees internationally through reputable organizations.

  • International Rescue Committee is providing immediate medical and emergency supplies.
  • American Refugee Committee is partnering with local communities to provide safe spaces for women and children, prevent violence against women and deliver emergency supplies.
  • Shelterbox is delivering tents and lifesaving supplies.
  • Save The Children is addressing the need for educational access, providing alternative learning services and training teachers. Also providing emergency relief.
  • World Relief is developing local partnerships and empowering local communities and churches to serve the needs of refugees. Also providing immediate tents and supplies.
  • World Vision is providing immediate aid, shelter, food/water, and sanitation services.

 

To Non-Blacks: On Charleston

PC: Matella Merlo

Do I sit shellshocked from tragedy,
Or do I stand beside those suffering,
Remembering the saints shot down?
Do I find solace in the capture of a terrorist,
Or do I struggle to find a pulse for justice and shalom,
Among the rubble of our failing communities?
Do I remain silent,
With words unformed and thoughts untethered,
Or do I lament over a nation so fractured, frightened, frail?
—————————————————————-
Charleston, voices suddenly summoned,
Joining the song of black men, women and children,
Too long obscured or placated.
Do I hear mine among them?
Or do I find my silence masquerading itself,
On the sidelines of convenience?
Do I hide behind the comfort of my non-black skin,
Or do I awaken, finally, this day,
marred by the residue of black blood spilled?
—————————————————————-
Constructed from the unarmed, now still,
#BlackLivesMatter,
The anthem rings.
A church prayed,
Shots pierced the sky.
9 dead. June 17, 2015.
Racism, stark and unfiltered indeed,
Quick to distance ourselves,
Are we still so blind, so naive?

Silence and Race

I’ll be honest. For a long time, I have sat at the edges as I’ve watched the Zimmermann case unfold, hiding in the background and avoiding any controversy. My wife and I have had few quick dialogues about updates we’ve heard or posts we’ve seen on facebook, but none of our exchanges have lasted more than 2 or 3 minutes.

As a Chinese-American, this type of veiled silence is often normal and deadly. Like a festering wound left untreated, it eats away at my soul and the collective well-being of our brothers and sisters. Of course, there may be an initial acknowledgment that something is amiss, perhaps even a certain amount of expressed sorrow shared on social media. But then, soon after, there is that silence that typifies so much of my own response. There isn’t an immediate uproar about insensitive comments, not even a response. Though I’m not Japanese, I’ll have to borrow this proverb because I think it illustrates a shared value that is often true for many, but not all, Asian Americans: “The nail that sticks out gets hammered.” While this proverb has some great truth, this is not a time for us to remain silent.

I’m not here to pretend that I understand. There’s plenty behind this case that I will never understand. I’m not black. I’m not white. I’m part of the in-between. I will never know what it’s like to be stopped by an officer because of my skin color. I will probably never experience the looks of distrust or fear that others face daily when they enter into a neighborhood. I will not get it on that visceral, internal, gut level way that my black friends do.

I’m not here to take sides, but…. I’m torn up, and my heart goes out to all those involved and touched by this case. No amount of words could ever bring back Trayvon to his family and friends, and no amount of words could ever describe Zimmermann’s experience over the past several months and what he still faces beyond this trail. Given the complexity of this case, there’s not much more that I can write that will be helpful here. However, as I read posts and reactions to this case from different perspectives, I cannot escape this reality: race still divides. Yes, the civil rights movement has secured on paper an equality for us all, and yes, we’ve progressed in so many ways. But underlying all of our suburban neighborhoods, city planning, justice systems and cultural consciences, there’s something that’s seriously rotting in us around the issue of race. And it stinks, guys. Our perceptions of race still carry significant implications on how we treat one another. Have doubts? Check this racial profiling video out (Thanks K Khang!)

I’m here. I’m here to pray for the day when Christ comes to heal all that is wrong and bring it to right. I’m here to listen to my brothers and sisters and learn from their own experiences. I’m here to commiserate when appropriate. I’m here to encourage dialogue and growth rather than unquestioned assumptions or unhealthy silence. I’m here to take a stand for racial reconciliation, even as I find things in myself that need to be repented of. And I’m here to offer my voice rather than my silence.

A Plea to Asian Americans and Others Like Me. It’s easy to avoid being that nail that sticks out, to sit on the sidelines when you’re not primarily or essentially affected. But we’re not meant to live on the sidelines. When real injustice perpetuates itself in instances like racial profiling, God’s Spirit nudges us a bit because it runs counter to the Person of Christ and our very humanity as it is meant to be. It’s almost like he’s trying to shake us out of our slumber, saying “Pay attention! Don’t ignore this!” And if we really take a step back and consider what’s at stake, we would see that we really can’t afford ignorance. It’s too costly.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not trying to guilt or shame you into caring. Indeed, God intends for us to live in, through and by grace. But He also intends for us to participate in his kingdom breaking in as He makes all things new and transforms us “till we have faces.” So let’s get in the game. Talk with your friends. Ask what’s going on. Listen. Learn about the ways that racial profiling affects your own perspectives. And where we still might fall short, let’s lean on the One who will renew all things for his glory.